Deciding to learn Thai in Bangkok is the most important step towards integrating into your new home, or towards changing your interaction with Thai people if you’ve lived here for a longer stretch of time. One question that often pops up for potential learners is: Should I learn how to speak or to read Thai first?
Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages, and despite both being integral parts of the Thai language, they are two very different skills. So is one more valuable than the other? We’ve all heard of ‘Visual’ and ‘Auditory’ learning, and most of us believe ourselves to be one or the other. This may be a significant indicator of the benefits we might receive from either method. Learning the Thai script, either at a Thai language school or on your own is of course a very visual activity. Conversely, learning how to speak Thai, and correspondingly, to listen to it is very auditory.
Let’s take a look at 5 advantages for each method.
5 Advantages of Learning to Speak first:
1. Faster Communication with Thais
Let’s begin with the most obvious advantage, the majority of learners decide to study Thai in the first place with the aim of communicating their needs and bringing down that pesky language barrier between them and locals, by learning how to directly interact with them through increasingly complex speech.
The benefits of learning Thai are vast, whether in the context of work, with your Thai friends or partner, or for navigating the beautiful, less visited parts of Thailand, after all, meeting new and interesting people is a great motivation to continue studying at a Thai Language school. Reading, and by extension, writing, may have its own benefits, but immediate and efficient communication about the pain in your arm to the doctor is not really one of them.
2. Practice Makes Perfect
Speaking with others, whether it be other learners or with Thai people, provides the opportunity to rehearse what has been learned, which for many people reinforces their learning in a way that reading in an unfamiliar script can’t.
Physically speaking Thai is the best way to reinforce the new language, by exercising quick recall and thinking on your feet: you effectively have to create your own sentence structures as you go. Practicing reinforces good speaking habits too. Having a good Thai language teacher can also streamline this process through corrective feedback, and within a classroom setting, all students can benefit from the feedback given to each individual.
Speaking ultimately provides the best way for many people to consolidate what they’ve learned, whether in the classroom, on the street or from reading, and this reinforces the patterns of speech, gradually improving recall and allowing for an ever smoother flow of conversation.
3. Communicate Like a Real Person
In general terms, spoken language and the written language are presented in different registers, with spoken Thai being much more peppered with slang and colloquialisms. This ties in with your reasons for learning Thai in the first place. Are you learning to read obscure Thai literature? Or do you want to learn practical communication for everyday life?
Learning Thai properly, i.e., in a formal manner is important, but so is learning words and expressions that people use on a daily basis. Some Thai language schools are happy to teach their students this side of the language, but some are not. If you want to do your best to be taken seriously and fit in, perhaps speaking in the most formal register isn’t going to help. It will certainly help you in your reading, but may perhaps sound a little amusing in the marketplace.
4. Maintain Your Independence
How often have you had to ask a Thai friend to translate something for you? Have you ever had to phone someone for help at the bank or when you have to ask your landlord something? These kinds of everyday issues can lead many of us to miss our own self-reliance.
Learning how to speak for yourself is the perfect antidote to these problems, even a decent understanding of a reasonably basic level of Thai can really cut down on your reliance on others and help you to regain that independence. Complementary to that independence comes a greater enjoyment of life here in Thailand. It’s no secret that bringing down that spoken language barrier allows learners to delve deeper and makes local knowledge and snippets of cultural and travel information more accessible, whether this comes from a monk at a local temple or your taxi driver from upcountry.
5. Add Meaning to Your Time in Thailand
Being able to communicate with people in spoken Thai is by far the best way to get the most out of your experience in Thailand. It’s very easy to fall into that expat bubble, but without speaking to locals in their own language, aside from getting accustomed to being here, are you really going to get much more out of your experience living in Thailand than a tourist would?
To study Thai is to get beneath the surface of Thai culture and life in a way that gives a deeper meaning to the time that you’ll spend here. Learning Thai in Bangkok also plays an important role in strengthening personal ties with the culture and the people of the city, as well as with the country as a whole. Whilst reading Thai has its own range of benefits, the ability to communicate verbally is the key to interpersonal interaction, melting away those barriers and deepening that connection to Thailand.
5 Advantages of Learning to Read first:
1. Immerse Yourself in Real World Resources
What does that mean? What does this say?… Do you find yourself asking these questions to your Thai friends or colleagues? Or wondering them to yourself every day? Could there be a more plentiful resource in Thailand than the written Thai language? Once you’ve learned how to read those initially confusing letters and symbols, you’ll slowly start to notice words everywhere that now make sense. The more of this you recognise, the more of it you can learn from context.
If you’re interested in visiting Thailand’s lesser-known provinces, like Chanthaburi, Chaiyaphum or Chai Nat, simple things like being able to identify place names at bus stations or reading menus in restaurants that don’t see many foreign guests will get you far. Not only is this very useful in navigating through your day, but it’s also an excellent way to meet locals and to break the ice when they realise you can read.
2. Master the Real Sounds of Thai
Many learners who have learned the Thai script have found themselves in the scenario where they read a Thai word that’s been transliterated into the Latin alphabet, and even though they’ve learned both the Thai script and they’re used to a particular set of rules for reading the sounds of Thai in the Latin alphabet, they reach a point where it would just be simpler to read the Thai script. At that point, it would just be easier reading the Thai script, rather than relying on differing versions in the Latin script, to know which sounds to make when reading a word aloud.
On top of the sounds themselves, there are also great advantages to reading when it comes to both distinguishing vowel length and mastering those ever-tricky tones. Learning Thai pronunciation this way makes it less likely that you’ll develop bad habits when you do speak.
3. Absorb New Information on Your Own
When you’ve learned how to read the Thai script, a major benefit is the ability to learn new vocabulary when you’re on your own. This vocabulary can be much more easily assimilated into your memory when you start using them in speech the next time you’re engaging with someone in Thai.
Quite simply, for some people reading can provide better opportunities to learn new information and once the script has been learned, it opens access to a whole range of useful materials. Books aimed at children may seem like a silly choice of reading materials at first, but you’d be surprised by how useful they can be in your initial phases of learning.
Once you feel more confident with the basics, why not move on to more complex materials, such as song lyrics, Wikipedia pages or the new Language Learning with Netflix app which provides subtitles in both Thai and English (or a range of other languages depending on your preference). Whatever materials you chose to read Thai, you can be sure of building up a solid arsenal of useful vocabulary.
4. Learn at Your Own Pace
With any language that we learn, the quick pace of speech generally tends to be a barrier, particularly to our understanding of what we hear in a conversation. With reading, learners can dictate their own speed of input and take charge of the rate they absorb Thai language and vocabulary. Unlike speaking, there is no need to catch up with the rate of speech of another person.
Most visual learners would tell you that it might take hearing a new word 4 or 5 times for it to stick, but they can remember the word much more easily if they see it written down just once or twice. For them, this means that not only is the pace of learning increased by reading, but also the pace of retention. With a new script to adapt to, this will indeed be a much more straightforward process if the new Thai words are noted down with Latin phonetics, but as you become more accustomed to the new script, you’ll find yourself becoming increasingly able to remember whole words in the Thai script with all the associated benefits this brings.
5. Gain the Respect of the Locals
In a similar vein to the last point regarding the benefits of speaking Thai, the ability as a foreigner to read Thai is viewed by many locals as a skill worthy of respect. As evident as this may be in Bangkok, it’s even clearer in the less visited provinces. It would be unfair to say that speaking Thai doesn’t command a certain level of respect, but the difference in the reactions of people when they realise you can read the menu, or that sign at the temple that says “Take off Your Shoes”, whether you’ve spoken to them or not, is clear.
Another more practical need for many learners to read Thai is that it becomes a requirement for your longer term ED visa. That respect from Thai people also extends to the officers at the Ministry of Education to whom you have to prove your acquired skill in the Thai script.
What Should I Learn First?
When studying the Thai script outside of school hours, we would recommend choosing materials that you enjoy. If you’re interested in what you’re reading, you’re likely to get much more out of it. This applies to purely reading materials, such as internet articles and mixed media, such as subtitles on Netflix or song lyrics.
At Duke Language School, speaking is taught for 3 months before reading. There are a number of reasons for this, foremost among them is simply the fact that this is where the demand lies. That being said, Thai writing is provided within the materials right from day 1 for those who want to make use of it and incorporate it into their learning experience from the outset. Your Thai teacher will also be happy to provide words in the Thai script during your lessons.
Returning to the initial question, when it comes down to it, your preferred method is likely to be highly dependent on your reason for learning. For most of us, the need or desire to be understood within our surroundings is the biggest motivator. This is a key reason why so many of us naturally tend to favour the speaking skill over reading. However, there is a lot to be said for combining the two in order to get a fuller understanding of the Thai language, and by extension Thai culture and people.
Before making your decision on whether to focus on just your speaking skills or just your reading skills, perhaps it would be prudent to consider learning both as a complement to one another. Learning both of these skills, whether speaking or reading, is an excellent way to enhance your skills in the other method, so why treat them as if you have to choose one over the other?
Trying to learn Thai, but can’t stop that Netflix addiction?
How would you like to study Thai while enjoying your Netflix marathon?
Worry no more, here’s how you can binge-watch your way to fluency.
1. Install Language Learning with Netflix
Install the Google Chrome extension, Language Learning with Netflix, so you can visually pair Thai subtitles with translations in your language and learn new vocabulary or phrases in the process.
2. Select a Thai Movie
Go to the catalogue to select the Thai movie you’d like to learn from.
3. Select Language
Open Netflix and go to settings for LLN to select the language you want the Thai subtitles to be translated to.
4. Start Learning New Words and Phrases
Enjoy the show. Listen to how the actors speak Thai in their native tongue and pause whenever necessary to check the meaning of a word.
New airport fingerprint scanners, sudden changes to ED visa requirements at embassies and consulates, and the enforcement of the TM30 all indicate that the authorities are now more determined than ever to uphold their “good guys in, bad guys out” slogan.
For language schools, that translates to “real students in, fake students out”.
So, how do you improve your chances of getting the ED visa if you’re planning to study Thai at a language school in Bangkok?
1. Choose The Right Embassy (Or Consulate)
Do your research before visiting a Thai embassy. Not all of them are the same. Some are friendly, some not. Some are easygoing, some are strict. Some embassies for example, require students to sign up for 25 hours of Thai lessons per week, or 100 hours per month to be granted the ED visa. Obviously, you will not be getting the ED visa if you visit any of these embassies.
Ask your school for advice to narrow down your choices, but don’t just take their word for it, as changes occur all the time. Check the embassy website before making a visit and contact them to find out if there are changes that haven’t been announced.
2. Prepare A Bank Statement Or Bank Passbook
More and more embassies are requiring ED visa applicants to prove that they have enough money to support themselves in Thailand. If you don’t have much to show, they will assume that you are planning to work illegally. There are many companies that require foreign workers to apply for the ED visa so they don’t have to pay taxes or go through the hassle of applying for the Non-Immigrant B visa and work permit.
How much do you need to show? The amount varies, so check with the embassy before paying a visit.
3. Get A Police Clearance
While it is not required by all embassies, many are starting to ask for the police clearance and it may soon become a standard requirement.
Go to a police station in your home country or in Thailand and ask for a criminal record check. The cost is only 100 baht in Bangkok, but it will take 1 to 2 weeks to process. The police clearance must be in Thai or English, or it will have to be translated by a certified translator.
4. Do Not Border Bounce
Having too many entry stamps without a long term visa will put you at a higher risk of getting your ED visa rejected. The more entry stamps you have, the more it will appear to the embassy that you have some business or job in Thailand which you are not declaring. They will also assume that you are only applying for the ED visa to continue your work with no real intention to study Thai.
5. Avoid Back-To-Back Tourist Visas
Most embassies are okay if you have just one (60 day) tourist visa with one (30 day) extension. Your chances of getting the ED visa however, will be reduced if you have two back-to-back tourist visas or more. It’s no different from having too many entry stamps, as it doesn’t help convince the embassy that you are serious about studying Thai, much less going to school.
6. Do Not Delay Your Application
This advice only applies to applicants already based in Thailand waiting for the letter of approval from the Ministry of Education.
Here’s a scenario. Your application is approved by the Ministry of Education, but you still have a month and a half on your tourist visa plus the option of extending your stay by another 30 days. You decide to stretch your time till the very end and two and a half months later, you make your way to a Thai embassy only to get your application rejected.
What went wrong?
If you spend too much time in Thailand after getting your application approved by the Ministry of Education, the embassy will assume that you are either not serious about going to school, or you have already started studying Thai and should come back with updated documents indicating that you are at a higher level.
7. Answer Questions Carefully
The embassy may throw some questions at you, so think carefully before answering.
Here are some tricky questions:
“Have you studied Thai before?”
If you’ve studied Thai before, but signed up for the beginner level so you could stay the full length of the ED visa, answering “yes” may get you a rejection if the embassy decides that your letter of approval from the Ministry of Education should indicate that you’re starting at the intermediate level instead.
On the other hand, if this is your second time applying for the ED visa, saying “no” will get you a definite rejection, as you should already be at the advanced level. Be prepared however, to get quizzed in Thai by the embassy.
“What are you doing in Thailand? Why do you want to stay in Thailand?”
For obvious reasons, the only “correct” answer is to study Thai at a language school.
“Where do you work? What’s your occupation? What do you do?”
The fastest way to get a rejection is to tell the embassy you’re teaching English, modelling, freelancing, selling products online, or even worse, working for a company that won’t get you the work permit and Non-Immigrant B visa.
If you plan to work in Thailand, the ED visa is not the right option. You may however, search for a job while studying Thai, or look for opportunities to set up your own business. Once you’re ready to work full time or start a business, you may cancel the ED visa in order to apply for the Non-Immigrant B visa.